Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey

Not many people know this--actually, thinking about it now, NO ONE knows about this--but after I first read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, I got into this habit of writing letters between Ella and the prince about the widest range of (sometimes strange) topics. What made it so fun that I spent whole afternoons writing them was that I tried my hardest to make them sound as royal-ly and posh as possible. The result? Possibly the epitome of stunted prose, if there ever was any. I was parodying myself, so I guess I learned early on to enjoy the art of making fun of thyself. At least I did something right.

Anyway, I had actually forgotten all about that until I read this book… See, our main hunk, Lucius Vladescu, is in America on a mission. When he and Antanasia, a vampire roughly his age but from his rival clan, the Dragomirs, were born in Romania, they were pledged to each other. Meaning they would marry once they came of age in an attempt to join the power and reign all the vampires together peacefully. But then, when the worst happened and their vampire village was attacked and their parents killed, Lucius was sent to live with his family’s Elders and Antanasia was entrusted to an American couple on the scene who were there to study the Romanian subcultures until she became eighteen. The couple took Antanasia Dragomir, vampire princess, back to the States and renamed her Jessica Parkwoord.

So, Lucius came around right before Jessica’s 18th birthday. And when he shows up, her whole world comes crashing down. Jessica’s a self-professed logical person, and the idea of marriage pacts and the very existence of eternal creatures like vampires really set her off. But eventually, she can’t deny them anymore and she has to face the situation head-on. They say she has a choice about the marriage…but does she really?

So, anyway, what made me think about my old writer-doodles was Lucius’s letters to his Uncle Vasile, who practically his (very cruel) father. The letters, albeit containing very funny tidbits, had this sort of forced charm to them… I don’t know, it’s Lucius’s only first-person narrative in the book (the rest is all told by Jessica’s POV), so maybe there was some urgency to make sure we understood he was regal. But…

That was the first thing that annoyed me.

Now, what’s funny is the beginning of this novel as a whole didn’t work for me. I’ve never had a more serious reason to call it quits on the grounds of “been there, done that” (because of the letters), and yet I kept going…and going…and going until it got better, somewhere past page 60. That’s where this novel’s--Ms Fantaskey’s--good writing began writing in the tune of the actual story and things began moving.

That’s when I got sucked in. And this is where I tell you this won’t be an easy review to write.

First, the packaging is so, so wrong for this book. It BELLOWS “FLUFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!” when this novel is anything but. Sure, the beginning was pretty fluffy, but as far as I’m concerned, that beginning Never Happened. The rest of the novel took a very, very unexpected turn for the dark side of things, full of angst and all things gloriously worth reading about.

This was a most welcome change of pace. A beautiful, very touching scene of Jessica getting an old portrait of her mother, the queen, and almost having a conversation with her as she tried to figure out how to incorporate her mother’s royal spirit while also being Jessica. Several emotionally-driven scenes with Lucius who keeps her on her toes.

I really liked the Jessica we saw toward the middle of the novel. After months of going on and on about the pact, Lucius suddenly stops and has it in for another girl, one Jessica hates. (And it’s not designed to make her jealous. He just becomes interested in her.) She confronts him about it and when he’s dismissive, where other main characters would have just backed down in order to protect their already hurt feelings, she presses him about it. When he’s hurtful to her, she slaps him hard across his face. She doesn’t take his shit. I loved the spunk, LOVED.

And Lucius…he’s one volatile character. Brought up with strong morals, strong manners, and strong sense of loyalty towards his family. The same family who’s ruthless, never hesitating to pound the message home. He’s got two physical scars to show it and a god knows how many emotional bruises. He’s quick-tempered, but he’s also mesmerizing and charismatic and charming. But most of all he’s an arrogant prick whose snobbish outlook bothered me to no end at first and made him quite unsympathetic. Then I kind of just accepted it into his character and it became funny and sometimes endearing. He’s not my type, but he sure seemed Jess’s… :)

I also liked quite a bit about the marriage-pact plotting that I can’t talk about as it’s spoiler-y.

Anyway! This is a hard review to write because up to this point, save from a comment here or there, this sounds all positive, right? But there’s also a lot of negative.

I hate to be the one to be comparing yet ANOTHER vampire book to
, but some of the plotting evokes just that. When I finished the novel, I thought, “This is a pretty good idea of the direction Twilight should’ve gone.” It’s not a book without its faults, but at least the vampire mythology is creative and includes no sparkling. The main character takes way too long to get over her vampire incredulity, especially since she was brought up in a house of believers of all things weird and the fact Lucius is walking proof of it, but other than that she’s got a backbone and isn’t willing to face her man. And said man is not NEARLY as stalkerish as Edward. He can be a bit overbearing in his chivalry, but no “I watch you while you sleep”.

It’s not a retold version of Twilight. It has its own creativity, I think. It stands on its own.

What didn’t stand on its own were nearly every character aside from Jessica and Lucius. That was the second thing that annoyed me big time. Jessica’s best friend since she was four was oddly always off to the periphery, awaiting her cue that Jessica needed someone to fill a scene with or some help getting her hair ready. The parents…what parents? Same deal as the best friend: only pop in when the plot makes them help Jessica. She could probably send them off and host a huge-ass party at her house and they probably would never mention it. Jessica’s love interest? I liked him in the breakup scene. Wish he’d gotten more screen time. And I don’t get the bully. It seems Jessica is the only one targeted and it’s just…never explained.

Then some spoiler-y plot stuff toward the end felt messy in hindsight.

And although I liked the (admittedly hurried ending), I have to say, it reminded me a bit of New Moon. (Don’t kill me for bring up the comparisons again!)

And now for my closing arguments… I didn’t sleep at all last night and instead read this. It took my mind off the fact I needed to sleep but couldn’t. It got me into its story. It’s a flawed book, yes, very much more so than I would usually care for. But sometimes this happens--sometimes a book I can admit has a lot of problems turns out to be really, really enjoyable and worth the read. This one was one of those. If you’ve had that happen to you, and none of the review stuff sets you off, maybe give it a try?

As it is, I have to give it a 6.5. I do recommend, but not to everyone.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | February 1st, 2009 | 351 pages | Beth Fantaskey's site | GoodReads | IndieBound | Amazon

*If you've read the book & haven't seen the extras (which contain spoilers!) on Ms Fantaskey's website, here it is.

3 comments:

Midnight Bloom said...

I really enjoyed Jessica's Guide and like you, I thought the ending was rushed a bit but I still enjoyed the novel. The letters were fun to read for me. :)

Simply_Megan said...

I read this book awhile ago and couldn't remember exactly how I liked it so I went back and read my review. And our reviews are extremely similar, which is kind of creepy haha. I likened it to New Moon, I didn't like how it took forever for Jessica to believe Lucius was a vampire, I thought Lucius was arrogant and cocky. Weird. If you want to read the whole thing: http://wwwsimplymegan.blogspot.com/2009/05/jessicas-guide-to-dating-on-dark-side.html

But good job on your review haha you explained your opinion very well.

the epic rat said...

Comment the First: I can't believe you wrote letter conversations between Ella & the prince - that's really awesome...and yet really odd.

Comment the Second: That 2nd cover you have posted is amazing and it totally does not scream FLUFFFFFFY! though it seems like a twisted version of Twilight.

Comment the Third: Great review - I thought your thoughts were fair. I enjoyed the book myself, but there were some small quirks in the storyline that drove me nuts.

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